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January 20, 2022
Leaders, Boards, Funders Should Start Talking about Turnover
Game Plan
While executive directors/CEOs and boards often shy away from discussing leadership transitions, such conversations are more important than ever, especially as the pace of retirements among Baby Boomers increases in coming years, and there are practical ways to jumpstart those talks.

Simply put, transition planning is often a taboo conversation for many organizations: leaders avoid it for fear of signaling they want to leave prematurely; boards shy away from it because they don't want to mistakenly convey they want leaders to depart.

Last fall, The Boston Foundation (TBF) asked more than 30 Greater Boston nonprofit executive directors/CEOs to share reflections about their experiences addressing and preparing for past, current, and upcoming organizational leadership transitions. Many said they were "not having proactive conversations about talent and succession planning or have only slowly begun to broach the subject with their board."

However, the nonprofit leaders suggested the following actions, highlighted in a TBF report, Opportunity in Change: Preparing Boston for Leader Transitions and New Models of Nonprofit Leadership, that staff, board, and funders can take that will lay the groundwork for healthy, productive executive transitions.

Ideas for Staff

Identify a trigger to jumpstart the conversation about succession planning with your board.

Leaders acknowledged that starting a conversation with the board about transition can sometimes feel taboo, and recommended a number of springboards for discussion, including:
  • Executive directors with contracts can use contract negotiation as a natural point to start the conversation about tenure and transition with the board.

  • Raise the issues as part of a natural organizational planning process, such as a strategic planning or an organizational assessment.

  • Consider your own succession as you hire for senior staff. Ask yourself and your board, “Should I be thinking about this person as my successor?”

  • Bring up succession as part of the annual performance review conversation with your board.

Ideas for Board Members

Normalize the practice of discussing transition as part of the executive director/CEO’s annual performance evaluation.

Leaders reported that it felt most natural when their boards discussed transitions with them as a standing agenda item during their performance reviews. If a board is not conducting an annual performance review with the executive director/CEO, begin the practice now.

Understand and discuss the risks of an executive director/CEO unplanned departure with fellow board members.

At a minimum, leaders noted that it was helpful when boards begin conversations with them about an emergency succession plan, in the event of an unplanned or sudden departure. These conversations may help to catalyze broader conversations about an organization’s long-term succession needs.

Consider hiring an interim executive director during transition. A good interim executive director/CEO will provide the organization with both stability and an objective lens on the organization’s strengths and opportunities for growth until a new leader or leadership structure is selected.

Ideas for Funders

Ask your nonprofit partners about how they approach planning for executive transitions and pay attention to their responses. Leaders mentioned that external funding partners inquiring about transitions helped them more easily and naturally instigate conversation with their boards.

Reward transition planning. Recognize that planning for transitions takes your nonprofit partners time and effort. Fund your nonprofit partners either with unrestricted or, if possible, additional, specific support for transitions as they conduct this important work.
April 2017
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